Doing Data Differently: The Office for Creative Research

On the last day of 2012, I left the New York Times and opened the doors to a new venture: The Office For Creative Research. In the four-ish years hence, we’ve grown from three employees to ten, and we’ve moved from an upstairs tenement apartment on The Bowery to a bright new office in Downtown Brooklyn. We’ve also created a remarkable variety of data-focused work, from a series of database performances at the Museum of Modern Art to visualization and sonification tools for immense criminal botnets. We’ve helped to count elephants and analyze ambulance traffic and we’ve made data sculptures for public spaces big and small. We’ve visualized the history of NASA, the rippling influence of Einstein’s theories and the convoluted ad targeting system. We’re supporting the largest open-data conservation project in Africa, and we’re building an open platform for field researchers and explorers.

However, while we’ve been good at making work, I don’t think we’ve been very good at explaining who we are and what we do. A friend whom I’ve known for many years recently cornered me at a cocktail party and asked (somewhat sheepishly):

“So what exactly does The OCR do?”

This post is for that friend. It’s for anyone else who may have had the same question in their heads, and for all of you out there who might not have known (until now) that The Office for Creative Research existed.

Who We Are

The OCR, circa November 2016 (not pictured: Erik Hinton, Gabriel Gianordoli)

The OCR is myself, Noa Younse, Genevieve Hoffman, Zarah Cabañas, A’yen Tran, Kate Rath, Chris Anderson, Jane Friedhoff, Eric Buth, Gabriel Gianordoli, and Erik Hinton.

What We Do

We make visualizations, online tools, community platforms and public interventions that increase data literacy, facilitate understanding, and promote equality. Our work is meant to provoke surprise and delight, while driving critical thought and facilitating understanding.

Through careful research and sophisticated analysis, we work to deeply understand complex data systems. We then design and build unique methods to communicate these data systems to the public.

Here are three projects that we’ve released in the last six months:

http://elephant-atlas.org

In 2013, The Great Elephant Census embarked on the first pan-African elephant survey in 40 years, in order to understand the alarming decline of elephant populations across Africa. They brought this wealth of data to our studio, asking us to tell the many stories within it.

We created the Elephant Atlas: a web-based, hybrid storytelling/data-exploration platform that expressed the myriad factors surrounding elephant conservation. Users could move through the story of the GEC, dive into factors that affect conservation (from policies to poaching to GDPs), see how different countries compared, and also — via our user-friendly interface — explore the API themselves, generating targeted maps and reports that they could take with them.

The results of our work were unveiled at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in late summer 2016: shortly after the WCC, China announced that it was banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, in effect shutting down the world’s largest ivory market.

“Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”

— Barack Obama

We Were Strangers Once Too is a public data sculpture which highlights the role that immigrants have played in the founding, development, and continued vibrancy of New York City.

Consisting of 33 metal poles each inscribed with the immigrant population in NYC coming from an individual nation, a viewer’s shift in perspective resolves the sculpture to an iconic heart when viewed from a specifically placed viewing platform.

We Were Strangers Once Too was installed in Times Square for 27 days. It was viewed by more than 20 million people, and generated more than 780 million press impressions.

Community map-making and data exploration in the Map Room

On March 7th, we took over a shuttered school in St Louis to make the St. Louis Map Room: a pop-up community space for creating and exploring original, interpretive maps of the city that reflect the personal stories and lived experiences of its residents.

At the Map Room, diverse community groups of St. Louis used a mix of analog and digital technologies (everything from pens and markers to drawing robots) to collectively author a set of large scale transmedia maps that express their lives and realities in the city.

By surfacing diverse and underrepresented experiences of living in St. Louis, this multifaceted initiative provides an intersection for humanities, technology, and social justice to meet, puts the narrative in the hands of the people, and creates a safe space for open and honest discussion that can become replicable in other cities facing challenges around inequality and divisive geographies.

To mark the closing of Map Room, Mayor Francis Slay declared April 11th official ‘St. Louis Map Day’, saying that the Map Room “provided an intersection for humanities, technology, and social justice to meet and created a safe space for open and honest discussion.”

Why We’re Different

You can’t throw a rock at a neighbourhood in NYC or San Francisco without hitting a data-focused company of some kind. What sets The OCR apart?

The OCR is committed to finding ways to work with data that respect the well-being of individuals and communities. We strive to make work that promotes equality, pushes against oppressive systems, and offers agency to those who are typically underpowered in data systems.

The OCR is a member of the Data Advisory Board for USA for UNHCR, and I am a member of the The World Economic Forum Network on AI, the Internet of Things and the Future of Trust. We write and talk a lot about how data systems can be made to be more human, and we try to put these principles into action in our projects.

Our team consists of engineers, artists, game designers, architects, community organizers, performers and philosophers. The OCR is 50% female, and our hiring practices are specifically aimed at increasing our team’s diversity, along racial, cognitive, gender and philosophical lines.

Collectively, our team has more than 60 years of experience working with data, building software products, making art, and engaging with communities.

Everyone at The OCR shares a common salary, and all of our production team members hold the same title. Success of the company is reflected directly in compensation, and our finances and business strategies are open and transparent.

For us, this ensures a workplace that is free from competitive politics, and a business that is designed for both individual and collective success. For our partners, it means disciplines are valued and compensated equally — there is no guarding of development resources. Rather, we sketch concepts with whatever tools our creative researchers find most effective, from code prototyping, to presenting visual design comps in InVision, to wireframes.

We move fluidly through the process, skipping traditional linear workflows when it’s more efficient or effective — designing from handsketches in CSS, or moving from rhino to fabric and wood prototypes. Our teams are heavily multidisciplinary, making these transitions smooth.

How You Can Work With Us

We are always looking for new partners who are working towards the same goals as we are: making data more understandable, more human and more liveable. We love crazy ideas, strange proposals, and unusual collaborations. If you or your organization is interested in working with us, please get in touch:

Secure e-mail: information@protonmail.ocr.nyc

Phone: +1 (718) 596–7200

Public PGP Key

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.